An Interview With...Ray Palen

How did you get started in theater? 
I was cast as Bert in "Mary Poppins" in my 2nd grade Music Class and have been hooked ever since.  Attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts as a teen in the 80's.

What hooked you? Was it your first school play-movie-first time seeing a Broadway Show?  What inspired you to be where you are today? 
I've been hooked since the 2nd grade.  Grew up in a house of "art" lovers (music, film, etc.). My family was close with former actor/stage star Allan Jones.  I attended a performance of his at Westbury for "The Student Prince" in the 70's and got the chance to go backstage with Allan and meet everyone.  The thrill of this hooked me into live theatre.

What was the first play you ever saw?  Ever performed in? 
See above answers.

Did you study acting?  If not, how did you get into it? 
Four years at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.  Private vocal lessons with Allan Jones and Broadway/Soap star, Ron Raines.


What was your first audition?
2nd grade competition for role of Bert in "Mary Poppins".

How do you choose what play you will audition for?  The piece itself, the director, theater, you were pre-cast, etc.          
I run a theatre group (The Minstrel Players), so I am pretty much pre-cast myself in those shows.  I find myself being called constantly to do shows with other groups and seeking out parts less and less, as a result.  I will only go to a Cast Calls audition if it's a show/role I really love.  Most groups do not give outsiders a chance, even when I give superior readings than those in attendance at the audition with me.

Speaking of pre-casting, tell us how you really feel about the subject. 
Certain shows demand it.  You cannot plan a production for a show with one or two dominant central characters without having someone in mind to play the roles.  Community and Regional theatre do not have unlimited budgets and, from a Producer's standpoint, you cannot risk casting an unknown who might be a failure or brings nothing to the production (ads, boosters, ticket sales, etc.).  I still believe that all companies should leave the door open to be "wowed" by an unknown who truly is more talented than the pre-casted person they already had in mind.  How else can you get your foot in the door?

What types of parts do you normally play?  Do you feel typecast?
I prefer comedy and drama.  I have done many musicals (because that's what makes money for theatre companies).  I would like more opportunities to do drama, but they are few and far between on Long Island.  I am very well rounded and strive to not be typecast or considered a "character actor".

Looking back on the roles you've been cast in, do you think there's a certain kind of role you get cast in repeatedly?  When directors look at a certain role, what do you think they see as a "Ray Palen" type?  
There are a few roles I've done repeatedly and I do find myself getting called to repeat them with various groups (i.e. Male and Female "Odd Couple", Perchik in "Fiddler").  I do a very good British accent and have been getting cast in several roles that call for that.


What is your approach to developing your character?
I am a true "method actor".  I need to find the character and act and react as that person to feel natural on stage.  Once I understand the characters (likes and dislikes, motivation, etc.) then I focus on learning the entire play inside out so that I am ready for anything.

Of all the characters you have portrayed, who is your favorite? 
Tough question.  I really liked Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady".  I've also had a lot of fun with many Neil Simon shows.  Sheridan Whiteside was great as well. 

What do you think were your best roles?  your worst? 
Best Roles  Henry Higgins "My Fair Lady", Sheridan Whiteside "The Man Who Came to Dinner", Paul Bratter "Barefoot in the Park", Felix Unger "Odd Couple", Sam Posner "Crossing Delancey", Nathan Detroit "Guys and Dolls". 
Worst role  I really dislike the show "42nd Street" and I had the misfortune of being cast as Bert in it and singing the dreadful "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" number.

What roles offered you the greatest challenge and why?  How well do you think you met the challenge? 
Henry Higgins was a huge part and I was young for the role.  Many had doubts about my casting but it ended up being one of my best-acclaimed performances.  Ditto for my casting as Sheridan Whiteside in "The Man Who Came to Dinner".

What role do you wish you could have a second shot at and get it right this time? 
Felix Unger in "The Odd Couple".  I'm not disappointed in my performance, but my Oscar was very weak and no two performances were alike. The production suffered greatly, as a result, and I would like a chance to do that part again with a strong Oscar.

What roles or types of roles would you most like to play in the future? 
I enjoy thrillers and I'm doing "Deathtrap" in the Fall.  I would love more shots at drama and wish some groups would do things like Mamet's "Glenngary Glenn Ross".


How do you feel when you perform? 
I'm in my element and never happier than when I'm on stage.

What motivates you to keep on doing what you're doing? 
I love it.  Having the opportunity to be someone else for a few hours, and entertain people in the process, is the most rewarding concept I can imagine.

During opening night jitters each one of us has said, "Why do I do this to myself?"  Why do you do it? 
I never get jitters.  I cannot see myself doing anything else and feel that my "day job" is an unnecessary inconvenience until I make "the big time".


What is your favorite theater story?
Wow  that's tough.  Here's one  during a production of "The Man Who Came to Dinner", the electricity went for about 5 minutes and I continued acting on stage.  Once the lights came back, I wheeled across stage to the telephone and said out loud  "damn Mesalia electricity" and I've never received a bigger ovation!

Did you ever miss an entrance, drop enough lines for it to be noticeable, crack up on stage?
Thankfully, nothing that bad.  Missed one entrance do to not being cued and it was embarrassing.  I don't rely on cues anymore and I'm always ready to go on.  Since I'm such a manic method actor, I learn everyone else's parts in my scenes, so I'm usually the one saying another actor's dropped line.

What was your worst theater experience?
Doing a show in the summer, while everyone else was at the beach, and looking at an audience of 3 people. That's the only time I ever said to myself, "why do I do it?"

What's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you on stage?
I had a bloody nose before going on stage during a performance of "Out of the Frying Pan" and had to keep dabbing my nose with a tissue while delivering my lines.


Why do you perform at the theaters you do? 
I seek out groups that are supportive, attitude-free and fun to work with.

Do you think regional theater will continue to grow on L.I.? 
Yes  but not without enduring tough times (economy, saturation of the market, negative perception of "amateur" theatre, etc.).

Who are some of the actors you've most admired or who have been particularly rewarding to work with? Who's the best (in your opinion) that you've done a show with? 
It's not fair for me to comment on this, since I direct and produce shows with my theatre company (The Minstrel Players) and do not wish to single anyone out.

Who is your favorite performer? favorite L.I. performer?
Too many to note here.  I do not have a favorite L.I. performer.  Would it be too much to say myself? (After all, I do watch all of my performances on video tape).


How do you maintain your career and do theater? 
With great difficulty.  I wish I could subsist on theatre work so that I did not need to waste my life with a day job.

Why do you spend so much time toiling in L.I. Theater? 
It's the best place to be!  To live and work on Long Island and to give something back to the community is dream come true!!

Do you find that your family supports your love of theater? 
Yes. My family are all a part of my theatre group.

How has performing enriched your life? 
More than I can put into words.


What brings you the greatest joy? 
Applause. Laughter. Smiling faces. Appreciation.  Putting a production together with family and friends and sharing the benefits together.

What really irks you?
Close-minded people.  So-called "regional groups" that won't cast outside of their mediocre base of regular performers.

If you won LOTTO tomorrow you would...
Quit my job.  Create a full-time theatre on Long Island and start auditioning for movie and theatre roles on a regular basis.

Is it true that you'd really rather be rich than good looking? 
No.  Good looking people have a much better chance at being rich. Look at all the pretty actors out there who can't act to save themselves!

What's your favorite word?

Assuming that there is a heaven, what do you want to hear when you get there? 
That they have a great theatre program and I'm starring in the next production.


Do you have any projects on the horizon that you want the readers to be aware of?
My group, The Minstrel Players, are doing "Deathtrap" this Fall and a revival of "The Man Who Came To Dinner" next February.

Given your choice of parts in plays, which play and role is your heart's desire? 
I've been fortunate enough to have played most of the roles I have coveted.  I would love to play The Tin Man" in "The Wizard of Oz" at least once.